Democracy won’t save itself. As Americans, we must save it ourselves.

We live in challenging times, where issues like climate change, terrorism, economic injustice and war threaten democracies here and across the globe. Now more than ever, Americans must reaffirm our commitment to the principles and practices of democracy.

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An American flag blows in the wind above the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 18.

An American flag blows in the wind above the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 18.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photos

As we watch the hearings held by the House committee on Jan. 6 and come to better understand the horror of that day, we are painfully aware of the fragility of our democracy, and how close we have come to losing it. It is critically important that we understand our recent history, because those who don’t are doomed to repeat it.

It is equally important that all those who committed crimes — including the former president — face legal consequences for their actions. No one is above the law.

While understanding history and holding people accountable are important, neither one helps us rebuild our democracy. Both will just prevent further damage.

And, if we are honest with ourselves, our democracy has been fraying at the edges for years now. The Jan. 6 insurrection was the culminating, public manifestation of the accumulated damage resulting from our polarizing media and political culture.

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The questions I’ve been asking are these: How do we start to rebuild democracy? How do we rebuild trust in each other, in our government, and in our electoral process?

There is no easy or foolproof path, but let me propose three ideas that could help bind us back together.

Voting, elections, national service

First, we should make voting mandatory for everyone 18 and older, just as it is in Australia, where I lived for four years. Failure to vote results in a fine. Messy as democracies are, they can only thrive if people participate.

In America, a third of voting age people did not vote in the 2020 presidential election — and that was still our highest turnout in history. Here in Chicago, two-thirds of people of voting age didn’t vote in the last mayoral election. How can we ask elected officials to be responsive to us — all of us — if so many of us don’t vote? How do we hold elected officials accountable for their actions if we opt out of the process?

Second, because so many legislative and congressional districts across the country have been gerrymandered or just lean heavily Democratic or Republican, far too many general elections are meaningless. Whoever wins the primary of the dominant party is basically guaranteed victory in the general election. In addition, this situation often pushes candidates to gear their campaigning toward the extreme wing of their party, rather than toward the center.

So, instead of always having a Republican and a Democrat face off in the general election, what if it was the two highest vote-getters from either party, in a nonpartisan primary? Those two top-ranked candidates would have to compete for every vote in their district to win election, rather than just appeasing the extreme fringes of their base.

General elections would be more competitive, candidates would have to broaden their appeal, and all voters would know that their vote matters.

Finally, we can rebuild trust and see our common humanity by requiring two years of national service for everyone between 18-25 years old. When we serve our nation together, and when we sweat and work together, we build bonds that can last a lifetime. While we understand and embrace our diversity, we also need to recognize our collective power and shared interests.

By national service, I do not mean only in the military, although that is certainly one option. It could also mean tutoring in low-income communities, taking care of our senior citizens, rebuilding roads and bridges, taking care of our environment, strengthening our public health system, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, reducing gun violence, etc.

Arne Duncan, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and co-founder of the anti-gun violence organization Chicago CRED, speaks during a news conference at Breakthrough FamilyPlex on the West Side before Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs an executive order declaring gun violence a public health crisis in the state, Monday, Nov, 1, 2021.

Arne Duncan in 2021.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Collective responsibility

I served seven years in D.C. I worked closely with people on both sides of the aisle. I built personal relationships with almost all 50 governors, including some extreme conservatives who were politically opposed to the president I served. Today, cooperation across party lines is too often seen as a sign of weakness, or even betrayal.

Today, 70% percent of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen. Numerous people who swore an oath to protect the Constitution openly peddle this lie to maintain political power. The real threat to our democracy is in plain sight and unless we, the people, do some things differently, that threat will increase with time.

We live in challenging times, where issues like climate change, terrorism, economic injustice and war threaten democracies here and across the globe. Now more than ever, Americans must reaffirm our commitment to the principles and practices of democracy.

Our obligation, and our opportunity, is not merely to defend democracy as we have known it, but to recreate it for the future and help it grow stronger and more deeply rooted. It starts with each of us.

No one else can save us. We have to save ourselves, and each other.

Arne Duncan served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2015. He is currently managing partner with Emerson Collective and the founder of Chicago CRED, an organization working to reduce gun violence.

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